By: Justin Russell | February 8, 2018
For nearly all of the 19 years I’ve been growing food I’ve done so as an amateur – for love rather than for a living. These days, the roles have reversed. I now grow primarily for a living, tending a three-and-a-half-acre plot containing a small mixed market garden, an avocado orchard and a range of soft fruits.
The switch from enthusiastic amateur gardener to professional market gardener teaches many things. A big lesson for me has been to learn how much monetary value a particular crop can generate from the garden bed area it occupies. Corn, for example, is a low-value crop because it takes up a lot of bed space, needs plenty of water and nutrition, has a fairly long growing season, and offers a fairly small yield at the end. Pumpkins are similarly low in value. The same goes for broccoli.
It might be one of the most popular cool season vegetables on the market, but the commercial reality of broccoli for the small-scale farmer with lack of space is not so appealing. It takes up lots of room (at least compared to a carrot or a lettuce), takes a while to grow, and offers a single head at the end of the growing season.
But for the home gardener there are ways to cajole multiple uses and harvests from your broccoli, making it far more valuable. Add to this its excellent nutritional content and the joy of picking something fresh, chemical-free and delicious for dinner from your own patch and you are on a winner.
The key to achieving maximum value with broccoli is to look beyond the production of a single head to other growth stages. Before a head is even produced, the leaves of broccoli can be harvested. These are similar to kale and the key is to take just a few from each plant so it doesn’t stunt its growth.
After the leaf stage has passed, look for the main head – harvest it while large but with the florets tightly packed. Next – if you chose the right kind of variety – come the side shoots. These mini heads or florets are just as tasty as the main head, arguably more useful in the kitchen and in a good season, continue to be produced for up to three months until they burst into flower (it is even possible in cool climates to keep broccoli producing for up to a year).
Still, the broccoli story goes on. If it goes to seed then the flowers are tasty and useful. Pick some and add them to a salad or use as a garnish. Better still, pick a bit of the stem as well and use this and the flowers like broccolini. If you can’t keep up with a big flowering plant, consider one final harvest, not for yourself, but for bees. They are highly attracted to broccoli flowers and will buzz about your patch collecting pollen and returning it to their hives (even better if you keep your own bees).